The Danny Pearl Death Tape

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Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl with a gun to his head

Can anyone possibly recommend watching the video of Daniel Pearl’s murder? On it, the terrorists who abducted the Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan force him to declare his Jewish heritage and condemn the U.S. government; they then saw the head off his limp body and brandish it while a list of demands scrolls up the screen. It is awful, evil, dehumanizing. But does that mean it’s not also a part of history? Last week a weekly newspaper declared that it was. The Boston Phoenix provided a link to the footage from its Web page and showed Pearl’s decapitated head in its print edition. (In May, CBS News aired non-gruesome segments.) Seeing the video, wrote the Phoenix’s publisher, "should galvanize every non-Jew hater in the world." Many media critics called the link a cruel stunt with no public benefit. The Pearl family was unequivocal: Those who share the video, they said, "fall without shame into the terrorists’ plan."

Daniel Pearl was an innocent civilian whose family never volunteered for the spotlight. So were the victims of 9/11. But the debate over their images started as soon as the airplanes struck the World Trade Center. HBO’s recent documentary In Memoriam used amateur video to chronicle Sept. 11; as someone jumps to escape the flames, a voice off camera lectures, "Don’t take pictures of that! What’s the matter with you?" Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended the images, arguing that we have not only a right but an obligation to watch, so as not to sanitize our collective memory.

What distinguishes a snuff film from a historical document? Showing crime-scene photos from a murder-rape adds nothing to the public discourse. The media chose not to print death photos of Princess Diana, and we were none the poorer. But there are exceptions. The Nazis’ victims stacked in mounds, the Viet Cong executed with a gunshot to the head, the dead at Kent State and in Rwanda all had families and a human right to dignity. But their deaths had an unfortunate significance for the world; they were conscripted into history in a way that someone knifed in an alley is not. Yes, we would still know what happened to them even if we destroyed every picture of their deaths. But would we feel it? Jacqueline Kennedy knew the power of image when she insisted on returning to Washington wearing the clothes stained with her husband’s blood: she said, "I want them to see what they have done."

She, unlike Pearl’s family, made her own choice. But Pearl’s murder too was an assassination, aimed at his country and his ethnicity. And the video is not simply raw footage of violence — the beheading scene is only a couple of seconds long — but a produced propaganda tape. Intercut with Pearl’s statement are war scenes from the Palestinian territories: an injured baby, Israeli soldiers. Using Muslim grievances to justify slaughtering a Jewish civilian should be insulting to all those whom the terrorists want to co-opt. But it evidently is not, given the terrorists’ continuing ability to win recruits. We may already know that intellectually. But the video makes this noxious logic searingly real. I sweated through every moment of watching the damned thing. I paused it every few seconds and paced, checked my e-mail, went downstairs to kiss my baby son — anything to avoid it. I felt sick and angry — at the killers, the Phoenix, myself.

Here is where, I suppose, I should tell you whether to watch the video. But I won’t. We feel compelled to cast judgments about viewing images of terror because terrorism seeks to make us feel powerless, and taking an absolutist stance — Don’t look at that! You owe it to the dead to look at that! — is a way of reasserting control. To say that there is some value in looking, but no shame in averting your eyes, places one in that squishy gray area in which we have to live. Having watched the video, am I better informed about the hatred behind the killing? A little. Am I somehow a better person for it? I doubt it. Should you watch as well? I have no idea.

Because images operate on an emotional level, no one can predict their effect — and that is scary. No one knows if the Pearl video will do more to rally the terrorists or us, whether seeing bodies falling from the towers will numb people or combat complacency. The Pearl video is the Zapruder film of terrorism, footage that will rightly carry a taboo and not many will want to see. But it would be hubris to decide that because I wish I had never seen it, you never should — that I can’t trust you to watch it for the right reasons or to draw the right lessons. If Daniel Pearl were here today, he might disagree. Daniel Pearl is not here today. He was murdered to send you a message. How to receive that message, and what to do next, must be your choice.